I find that chatting with people who live in the Rogue Valley or who have stopped by for a visit is by far best part of the volunteer work that I do; chatting comes easily as the shop benefiting Southern Oregon Hospice is splendid, the cause it serves is noble, and the likelihood of finding remarkable bargains almost guaranteed. As a confirmed thrift shopper myself, I am delighted to ring up a half-price sale of a set of vintage golf clubs or a designer gown, to congratulate the buyer and to admire the purchase. We are not what we buy, but there are affinities that emerge with the choices we make. I like hearing the stories people have to tell, and I find that asking a question or two seems to give folks permission to talk about where they have been and what they have found along the way.
I had expected that I’d meet a fair number of visitors in town for a short stay, catching performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I do, of course, so I ask about the plays they’ve seen, about their travels, about the routines they have established over years of bringing family and friends to the Festival. I meet a number of people who have retired to Ashland, Medford, Talent, Phoenix, people starting a new chapter of their lives. I ask about the homes they have left, about jobs they once held, about family here and family left behind. I ask about the homes they have known and the home they are making. Our shop receives donations of well-kept furniture, china, linen, silverware, glassware, gadgets for the kitchen, serving dishes – all the items necessary to stocking a new house or apartment, inexpensively priced and virtually new. Folks new to the region find us, discover treasures, and return as they settle in and figure out exactly what needs to be added in order to make the new place a home.
Some customers stop in every week, admiring new displays, checking in. They linger, listening to the music we play, considering clothes on the rack, taking them to the dressing rooms, setting some aside and putting some away. I ask about trips they have taken, trips they have planned, about visits from their children, about appointments with doctors. The songs I play remind them of times past, of people they once cared for. Stories begun the week before return with greater detail and with added twists and turns.
I’ve learned three true things about conversation. Almost everyone likes to be asked about themselves, people need enough space to let a real answer emerge, and the real answer is honored by being asked the next authentic question.
Think about the questions you wish someone would ask you. What parts of your story would you like to share? How could someone give you permission to tell that story?
The questions I ask are obvious: Where did you grow up? What was that like? Have you been back? What has changed? Do you have brothers? Sisters? Are you in touch with them? How did you come to live where you have? What were you looking for? What do you do to treat yourself when you need a treat? What do you like best about where you live? About the work you do/did? Do you like to read? What movies have you loved?
Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not running an Inquisition from behind the counter; I don’t handcuff them to the register until they cough up a response. I express an interest in having a conversation and enjoy those that do develop, but I don’t push or prod. It happens that I have a daughter with an uncommon gift for asking thoughtful questions. I’ve learned a lot from her, especially in understanding that a really good question often has no easy answer; it may take fumbling to a first response, stopping to consider what I’ve said, reconsidering what I’ve said, clarifying what I’ve said, moving more boldly into the wider range of responses, and finally landing on something like a measured response to what might have seemed a simple question.
That process takes some time, and I have to trust that the person who raised the question actually wants my most complete answer. If I were asked to name my favorite book, for example, I’d probably blurt out something like King Ottokar’s Sceptre (the 8th adventure in the chronicles of Tintin, Belgian boy-detective) almost immediately regret having exposed myself as an arrested juvenile, flop around a bit, recall that I was so absorbed in the novel that I ran a fever while reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, but have read Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine at least seven times, enjoying the book more with each reading, but then, I read Heidi Julavits’ Uses of Enchantment in one shot, couldn’t put it down, yet, reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian may have been the most emotionally draining reading experience in a long line of emotionally draining reading experiences. I read Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey every year and quote from it at the drop of a hat. Does that count?
So, I guess, Love Medicine.
No, maybe Hamlet
And, really, who wants to wait around while I work all of that out? The best news is that it doesn’t matter. If I trust the person asking the question, I have the opportunity to think seriously about how I feed my mind and imagination, and it is the person asking the question who has given me that gift. I’ll share what I can along the way, and that clumsy process can bring along something like a conversation if I allow room for another question or a comment and if I trust that I’m speaking with someone who actually wants to know what I think.
In the end it comes down to this – I ask questions because I do want to know what goes on in minds other than my own; I want to know what the human experience is for humans other than myself. In asking, I’m hoping the person buying the ceramic parrot will trust me enough to believe that I want to know where she intends to put the four-foot tall bird. Who knows where a conversation about that decision might end up?
Wait, maybe Carry on Jeeves?